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50+ CEOs Join Aviation Industry Initiative to Transform Airports into Clean-Energy Hubs

The World Economic Forum’s Airports of Tomorrow initiative seeks to address the energy, infrastructure and financing needs of the transition to a net-zero aviation industry by 2050.

More than 50 CEOs across the aviation ecosystem — from equipment manufacturers and fuel producers to engineering firms and airports — have joined the World Economic Forum’s Airports of Tomorrow initiative. In partnership with Airports Council International World, the initiative seeks to address the energy, infrastructure and financing needs of the aviation industry's transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“We see airports as strategically located epicenters of activity, where leaders from across the aviation ecosystem can convene and work together to transform the industry,” said Lauren Uppink, Head of Climate Strategy at World Economic Forum. “If the right planning and investment decisions are made today, airports can play a pivotal role in shaping a sustainable future for aviation as well as other transport sectors. The Airports of Tomorrow initiative will help airports harness these opportunities — enabling them to fulfil their potential as clean-energy hubs and standard-bearers for the net-zero economy.”

Airports of Tomorrow members include Airbus, Arup, Atkins, Boeing, Mott MacDonald, Neste, LanzaJet, Dufry, Menzies Aviation, Dallas Fort Worth (DFW), global transport-systems operator Mundys and its Aeroporti di Roma, London Heathrow, and many more.

Participants will be working together to:

  • Create a series of blueprints to articulate infrastructure requirements for airport ecosystems to transform their operations for sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), electric- and hydrogen-fueled aircraft

  • Produce a geographical distribution map of the 300 SAF plants that will be needed to stay on track to achieve net-zero aviation by 2030, broken down by region to maximize the sustainable feedstock potential in each part of the world

  • Mobilize capital through innovative financing mechanisms — for example, through the co-design of a SAF fund and creative regulatory and policy instruments

  • Deliver a sustainable finance toolkit to mobilize the billions of dollars of investment needed to transform airports into clean-energy hubs

While individual airlines are working to advance their own sustainability efforts and help scale industry-wide availability of SAF, more collaborative industry efforts are required to offer any hope of approaching the initiative’s goal of achieving net-zero aviation by 2050. WEF projects reaching a net-zero aviation industry will require an annual investment of approximately $175 billion — reaching $5 trillion by 2050 — to enable the transition to emerging technologies and alternative propulsion methods including SAF and battery-electric/hydrogen-powered flight. Participating stakeholders will help mobilize this capital and forge a path towards net zero.

"Airports serve as powerful cornerstones of the aviation ecosystem where we can unite, collaborate and facilitate the industry's sustainability transformation," said Sean Donohue, CEO of DFW Airport. “By making the right planning and investment decisions today, we have the unique opportunity to shape a sustainable future for aviation and set examples for other public and private sectors. Through initiatives like Airports of Tomorrow, we are dedicated to harnessing these opportunities — unlocking our full potential as clean-energy hubs and setting the standard for the net-zero economy.”

The shift will entail huge changes in infrastructure, both on and off airport sites. For example, it is estimated that airports could consume five times more electricity than they do today to power alternative propulsion methods, with global electricity demand for airports set to reach 600-1,700 TWh of clean energy by 2050 — equivalent to the energy generated by a solar farm half the size of Belgium.

The massive land footprint of airport sites also allows for new infrastructure that typically has not been associated with airport activity before — such as solar farms, blending facilities for liquid fuels, and storage for either liquid or gas hydrogen.

Most airports have space for hydrogen liquefaction and storage infrastructure, but not enough land to generate all of the clean energy needed to power battery-electric and hydrogen aircraft. Airports will have to establish new supply networks and partnerships to develop and scale off-airport infrastructure in addition to their on-site infrastructure changes — primarily in power generation, electrolysis and liquefaction — as well as the supply of sustainable aviation fuels.

4 key pillars

Airports of Tomorrow will work towards the goal of net-zero carbon emissions industry-wide by 2050, through four separate work pillars:

  • Infrastructure: Focusing on the production, distribution and storage of hydrogen and renewable energy on the airport grounds.

  • SAF and Scope 3 emissions: Focusing on the scale-up of at least 300 SAF plants by 2030.

  • Financing: Working on de-risking and upscaling innovative sustainable finance solutions for airports.

  • Blue Skies Pioneers: Partnering with WEF’s UpLink platform to create a startup challenge inviting new innovators to join the community.

“Any pathway to achieving net-zero aviation will require a fundamental transformation in energy provision — with implications across both airport infrastructure and wider energy networks,” said Graham Bolton, Global Practice Leader for Aviation at engineering firm Mott MacDonald. “By considering the airport as part of a wider ecosystem, we can develop new solutions that facilitate decarbonization of aviation and deliver wider community benefits. As Mott MacDonald, we are already integrating aviation, energy and climate expertise to help airports meet their environmental and social commitments; and we are excited to build on this as a champion for Airports of Tomorrow.”